For many years I considered traveling to the Middle East and Africa to some kind of far fetched fantasy. It was only after my circuitous journey through college and finally after being admitted into graduate school was able to realize my life-long dream of traveling abroad. Honestly, I truly feel blessed to make this journey. I wouldn’t trade my travel experiences for anything, however my travels abroad have marked some of my darkest, loneliest moments. I’m not alone. I’ve talked to a number of travelers and many have told me that loneliness and isolation is something you have to ride through when abroad. Even for those who haven’t been abroad, many of us have experienced the loneliness of the modern world. I have had many moments that I realized that so many of are living in our own lonely planets.
But back home, you can shout in the streets something and at least be understood. You can get in a car, bus, or train or easily pick up the phone and find someone to talk to. Sometimes you just want to call a friend and tell them a funny story about something that happened that day. But then, because of the cost of the call, the bad connection, and time difference, its so much harder to feel connected. It’s not only the language barrier and difficulties with communication, the time zones that separate you from everyone you know. It is the feeling that you could drop off the face of the earth and everything continues as normal, as if you didn’t matter. In reality, that’s how the world is, and we occupy such a small space in it. But feeling disconnected from the rest of humanity is the unfortunate side effect of traveling. Sometimes you can feel the pain when you’re reminded that life is going on without you back home. You realize that people are changing and you are no longer in the loop or privy to the important changes became home. That you’ve become a distant memory. Maybe you’re thought of as an anecdote in a dinner conversation. Or someone asks their self, “I wonder whatever happened to…?”
I didn’t feel like the rest of the world back home forgot me the first time I traveled abroad. But I felt the sharp pain of leaving my world behind, of the strained bonds with loved ones. My first experience aborad was in a pilot program organized by University of Arizona and Universite Moulay Isma’il in Meknes Morocco during summer 2004. There were about 9 students and two graduate assistants. For me it was a dream come true. I was so excited about the journey, the opportunity to see places and landscapes that I only imagined. And I did a lot of imagining from my text book readings, to my own creative writing. My friend gave me some words of wisdom, “Expect to see the best of the best and the worst of the worst.” Those were my expecations. But I could not really foresee what types of challenges I would face.
I caught the flu just before going to Morocco, got stuck in JFK, spending the night in a cold, dark, and eerie terminal. By the time I got to Morocco, I had this persistent cough that gradually developed into a major respiratory infection over the next few weeks. My luggage hadn’t arrived, and within two days I had succumbed to the gastro-intestinal hazards of travel. I had some challenging times in Morocco, it was both beautiful and heartbreaking. I never felt more isolated. I knew I was in a country with millions of people that I could barely speak to or who could even understand me. Even our residence that summer highlighted our isolation. Our residence were little cottages by the school of agriculture in the country side about 20 minutes outside of town. We didnt’ interact with Moroccan students and there were only a few families living near by. It was hard to join in conversations about their sheltered, idealistic lives. Others dominated the conversations and it was hard to find an opening. I knew none of them related to me. And if you can’t relate to someone, how can you like them? The tensions rose as they would make comments like, “They’re staring at us because we’re white.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m not white.” I was told that I said was being offensive when I visited the Marzouga and saw the evidence the ancient slave trade in the faces of the brown people. As I looked outside the window, I said to myself, “All these brown people….they’re beautiful!!” Realizing I was in a van full of white people who couldn’t relate to my whole sense of wonder of being in Africa, but at the same time seeing the counterparts to Black Americans in Diaspora. Unlike us Black Americans, the people in this region still had a distinct culture and identity. In the midst of my wonder, I realized I had to self censor. So awkwardly, I immediately followed up my two statements with, “Awesome!” (I know, I’m from Cali and I said it in a kinda like Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger) A few weeks later, someone told that they were deeply offended when they heard me say, “All these brown people, they’re beautiful! I feel at home!” I was deeply hurt, that my profound moment of wonder at a North African society heavily influenced by an influx of sub-Saharan Africans would be misconstrued. I felt alone then, that there was noone to share that moment.
I think after that, it was clear I was on my own. I began to withdraw and tried to ride each wave and not complain. I grew tired about the constant complaints, we all were tired of various things. And for me, I was tired of being isolated in a bubble of American students abroad. I often listened to my CDs. I stopped writing in my journal, hoping that time would provide the right perpective to make sense of what I was experiencing. At night I began to draw comfort by memorizing Qur’an. Thinks seemed to melt away when reciting Qur’an. I began to reflect and ponder the verses I memorized. And accepting that I had no one, opening myself up to the silence, an ineffable change happened. I felt like I was embraced by warmth and my heart was at ease.
During my second trip to Morocco I experienced a few days where I felt isolated. It is a lot more difficult to travel by yourself as a woman in the Middle East. In Morocco, if you walk outside as a woman, you’re asking for a lot of trouble. My first trip to Europe exposed me to a different type of isolation. I experienced many days of silence in during my week in Durham, England. The town was half empty. London can be a lonely place, you will sit alone and not one person will talk to you. Few people will even pass you a friendly smile.
But my most challenging period, happened last year. That was when I experienced my loneliest day ever, Christmas in Kuwait. In truth, it wasn’t because I missed Santa Claus and presents. Of course I missed my family and on that day. But after a traumatic event involving children and an injured pet, I had all my fears, suspicions, and doubts had been affirmed. I wrote about some of my struggles and isolation in Kuwait in my blog entries, Missing and How Am I Doing? My circumstances were trying and I sunk into a dark place in that basement apartment.
I was glad to leave the shining malls of Kuwait for the rat race of Cairo. Here, in the bustle and buzz, sometimes you avoid going out because it can be overwhelming. In a city of 20 million, you realize how small you are and how hard it is to stay connected with the friends in town. I met my previous roommate in America the summer before. At that time, she had left Egypt for good and I was actually sad because I was looking for contacts in Cairo. By November everyone was encouraging me to come to Egypt and I heard she was looking for a roommate. I had no idea how was I to get to Egypt. But then things began to unfold and I found some openings and opportunities. I met my friend in Alexandria and from there we searched for an apartment in Caior. Before I moved to the MIddle East, I had never lived with a Muslim woman. This sister became a dear friend and constant companion. She was so supportive and encouraging on so many levels. After the tensions with some of my friends back home, the loneliness of Kuwait, my roommate was a breath of fresh air. Her constant support and care helped stave off my feelings of isolation. I remained largely connected through the blogging community, my communication and links were mainly through stilted chats. But I was so busy in Cairo, working, taking classes at the French center, at al-Diwan, eating, washing and hanging clothes, and learning to navigate, that it was hard to dwell too much on home sickness. But when you travel abroad, there inevitably comes a time when your travel companions go away or some issue that could be solved swiftly at home drags on for days. Things run in unfamiliar ways. Sometimes even finding solid advice can be challenging. But traveling alone, you learn self reliance, creativity, and perseverance.
Looking back, I can think about a number of things I could have done to ameliorate the isolation. I’m a home body, and it is easy for me to sink into a funk without knowing its happening. Sometimes you just got to get out and take a walk. Make lots of friends where you are at. Even if it is a headache getting from A to B, foster friendships with people you get along with. Travel with people you know or trust. If you travel with people you’ve never travelled with, have a plan B and an escape plan C. Stay in contact with people back home. Guilt friends and family members into emailing or calling you. Don’t just focus on your adventures, but ask them how they are doing. Make phone, chat, or skype appointments with people back home. Develop a hobby. Keep a journal. Embrace the silence and enjoy spending time with yourself. Sometimes all it takes is to just keep breathing, breath because with every difficult comes relief.